In the midst of Advent, I’ve been reflecting on what this season of expectation is all about. As we recount the stories of all that led up to Jesus’ birth, we are invited to recall the expectations surrounding the coming Messiah and to recognize that we can’t always anticipate the ways that God will show up or work in the world. Look at Jesus. He wasn’t exactly the Messiah the people were expecting! In fact, there are a whole lot of surprising people doing a whole lot of surprising things in the biblical narratives. An old couple become parents; Zechariah didn’t see that one coming. The King of Kings is born in a barn to a poor, unmarried woman. Lowly shepherds are the first ones to welcome him.
Beyond the birth narratives, Jesus ends up calling a rag-tag bunch of disciples who keep misunderstanding him. Jesus proclaims crazy things, like the first will be last and those who lose their lives will save them. Instead of overthrowing the powers of the day, Jesus is crucified by them. But then some women share news that he is alive again. And in the midst of lots of fear and uncertainty, the church forms and grows, somehow persisting to this very day. Who would have expected all of that?!
As pastors, other people will have all kinds of expectations for us; we’ll have our own expectations for ourselves (and others) too. Pastors have to be generalists, bringing some degree of knowledge or skill to a very broad range of tasks. We don’t just have to be biblically and theologically grounded to provide leadership for worship, preaching, and Bible studies, but we also have to deal with budgets, property matters, leadership development, pastoral care, marketing, nonprofit management, and technology (to name a few). Along with all these areas of responsibility, clergy are navigating care for those within congregations, building connections in the community and remaining engaged with the denomination.
Because there is always more work that could be done, it’s easy to get caught up in all the things we didn’t feel like we’re doing well enough. No matter how wonderful the pastor may be, no one has the gifts, energy, know-how or time to do everything perfectly. Clergy have to contend with a host of both real and perceived expectations. Some of them are conflicting, and many of them are unrealistic, but we can be tempted pick them up anyway, adding them to the collection, until we’re crushed by the weight of them all. This tends not to go well for the clergy who get burned out or for the congregations whose ministry is limited to what the pastor can make happen.
Advent reminds us that our expectations and God’s are not always the same. When we look at the people God chooses to call, we don’t see superheroes who can single-handedly do all the things that matter. We see imperfect people who are willing to offer what is uniquely theirs to participate in God’s work in the world. When I look back at my own experience in church ministry, I am acutely aware of all the ways that I tried to be the pastor I thought I was supposed to be instead of being the pastor God had made me to be. I got so caught up in overcoming my perceived weaknesses that I didn’t always give myself much opportunity to develop and utilize my gifts.
As we move through this holy season, may we take notice of the expectations we are carrying with us and discerning about which to carry forward and which God might be inviting us to release. May we be gracious with ourselves and others as we seek to offer our best to the God who created us, gifted us, loves us and invites us to be part of the good work God is continuing to do in the world.